Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?

Thanks in large part to the impassioned activism of the #NeverAgain movement, the news hasn’t moved on from the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, as it has too often in recent massacres in the US. The pressure is staying on gun control, keeping the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in the hot seat.

The Second Amendment is also in this post’s etymological hot seat. I’m not debating its constitutional interpretation, though. I’m debating why we say second and not twoth.   

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The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

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It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup

We had a lot of interesting words in the news this week (some more polite than others). Here’s a news review with—what else?—an etymological twist. 

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Anthony Scaramucci spewed quite the obscenities this week…including the word sycophant? (Pixabay)

Continue reading “It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup”

New Year’s “resolutions”: an etymology not meant to last

“New year, new me,” as so many of us are starting out 2017, resolved to lose weight, save money, or variously better ourselves and lives. Historians trace the practice of making self-improving resolutions in observance of the new year all the way back to ancient Babylon. But why do we call them resolutions?

Resolution

The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the phrase New Year’s resolution in American author and minister Edward Everett Hale’s 1850 Margaret Percival in America: “I am here, ready, from this moment to obey. It shall be my New Year’s resolution,” says the titular Margaret, forswearing some friends leading her astray from the (apparently) better judgment of her priest and church. Such a resolution – an action one has resolved, or firmly decided, to do – is much older, dating to the late 1400s.

But the earlier meanings of resolution and resolve don’t sound so, well, resolute: Back in 1390s, the words were used in scientific contexts for “breaking a substance down into its component parts.” Intensified by the prefix re- (“back”), resolution and resolve come form the Latin verb solvere, meaning “to loosen,” among many other extended senses. (The deeper, Indo-European root, *se-lu-, suggests something like “loosened apart.”) Chemistry still shows the ‘etymological’ sense of Latin’s solvere: A solution, loosely, is a kind of uniform mixture of one substance completely dissolved in another. Indeed, dissolve is the first of this word family to appear in written English, used for “melt” in the 1380s.

But in math and more generally, a solution is something that seems far from “broken down”: It’s an answer. What  gives? There’s a metaphor to this madness: When we take something apart (literally solving it), we can see how it works; this helps us to better understand its fundamental nature (figuratively solving it). And when we truly know something, we can thus make a determined – a resolute – decision. Looseness becomes firmness. 

This January, if you miss a day at the gym and worry your New Year’s resolution is falling apart, look to etymology for some encouragement. Sometimes it’s in breaking down that we build ourselves back up.

m ∫ r ∫

What is the “math” in “aftermath”?

We’ve seen some startling statistics in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College: There is a gun for nearly every person in the US, where we average about a mass shooting every day,  which we have taken essentially zero action on. Etymologically speaking, though, aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. Let’s do the math in the word aftermath.

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“Math.” Sharpie and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.

Aftermath

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records aftermath at the end of the 15th century. Back then, it referred to “a second crop or new growth of grass after the first has been mown or harvested.” For, this math meant “a mowing” or “the portion of the crop that has been mowed.” It is found very early in Old English, taking the form of mæþ. As you may recall, the symbol þ, called “thorn,” represented the unvoiced th sound (as in thick) in Old English.

By the 1650s, the OED continues, aftermath was signifying “a period or state of affairs following a significant event, especially when that event is destructive or harmful.” By the 1670s, the word was more generally referring to the “unwelcome consequence or effect” of such an event.

This math is related to meadmeadow, and mow.  Indo-European scholars have rooted this family of words in a Proto-Indo-European root, *mē-, “to cut down grass or grain with sickle or scythe.” In the US these days, though, the Grim Reaper has swapped out his scythe for a gun.

meadow_scribblesm ∫ r ∫